Although there have apparently already been hundreds of film and TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, I hadn’t seen any of them so I was really looking forward to this new film and didn’t have the jaded attitude seen in many of the reviews! I am interested in the novel, which I first read as a child. It is the story of a young orphan girl, who is brought up by her bullying and neglectful aunt and cousins, and then sent away to a strict boarding school, where she suffers equally cruel treatment from the teachers. When she grows up and finally escapes the harshness of school, she needs to earn her own living and so becomes the governess at Thornfield, an isolated mansion with a mysterious owner, Edward Rochester.
The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was so scared by the appearance of Mr Rochester’s mad wife, who is described as a sort of inhuman witch-like creature roaming the corridors of Thornfield at night, that I had to stop reading it halfway through. After a day or two, when I had recovered from the shock (seriously, the book is very gothic and spooky so I don’t blame my younger self for having nightmares about it), my curiosity made me open the book again and I finished it. Although I always preferred Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre was still very strange, atmospheric and exciting, although I was probably too young to understand it properly. The next time I can remember reading it was at university when I was studying Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a really interesting book which looks at the Jane Eyre story from another angle or two, imagining both the history of the ‘mad wife’ from the West Indies and Mr Rochester’s own story of his earlier life and how he came to marry Bertha.
This film doesn’t really explore the colonial aspect of the book like Wide Sargasso Sea did, but mainly concentrates on the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, and does this in quite a moving way. The focus is the two characters, and how they are drawn to eachother and begin to form their relationship. First of all, we see how Jane manages to survive her sad childhood. Her rebellious tendencies and her will to fight back seem to have been crushed out of her by the time she is an adult, but she is left with qualities of determination and stoicism even while she outwardly acquieses to what happens to her. I think the book brings out Jane’s subversive side to a greater extent than the film, but the film does show her to have a strong sense of self-possession and honesty.
While at school, she befriends another girl, Helen, who is the only person to show her any affection. Helen is very religious and, in contrast to the younger Jane, experiences her suffering passively and believes in forgiving the people who mistreat her, rather than feeling anger towards them as Jane does. Although the teachers at school use their religion as a means to persecute the pupils, accusing them of being sinners and punishing them harshly, Helen’s religion does not lead her to such hypocritical behaviour but gives her suffering a meaning and is more idealistic and visionary, as shown when she tells Jane that the air is full of spirits watching over her. I think religion is shown in an ambiguous way (in the film, at least). Jane has an intense friendship with Helen, who has a great impact on her childhood, but Jane herself has a different, more individualistic and rebellious attitude to life. Later on, she is also unable to accept the watered-down love of St John and become a missionary’s wife, but instead follows her own desires and is rewarded for it.
Jane does not use her unhappy life as a way of making people pity her. When Mr Rochester first meets her, he teasingly asks her for her ‘tale of woe’, as all governesses must have one, but Jane just gives the simple facts of her upbringing and schooling. Her pride surprises Mr Rochester and makes him respect her more. Jane’s reaction to him at the first meeting is interesting; she is a mixture of frightened, defiant, and attracted, but she is not daunted by his sarcasm and worldliness. Rochester’s dissolute past is more mysterious than Jane’s and we don’t really know much about what’s happened to him. I think that the power the two characters hold over each other is what makes the story so absorbing. Even though there are romantic, gothic elements to the book, Jane is definitely not a victim who is seduced by the typical Byronic hero, but makes her own choice to come back to him.
Jane Eyre is about a very passionate, restless character, whom other people consider to have no emotions and no significance. She is someone without any advantages in life, and therefore her feelings go unnoticed. The book describes the inner life of a character who is full of emotion but is seen by others as fading into the background and as beyond hope of romance or passion (Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette also does this, even more vividly, but with less of the wish fulfilment aspects of Jane Eyre). The speech Jane gives to Rochester just before he asks her to marry him is a perfect expression of this…
“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”
The main reason I liked the film adaptation was the two leads, who are both quite compelling to watch, brought a lot of feeling and sympathy to their acting, and created a sense of chemistry between Jane and Rochester. It also has a beautiful gothic atmosphere, with bleak scenes of the rainy, windswept moors and the grey, gloomy Thornfield. It was definitely a good way to spend a bored Wednesday afternoon when I was in need of escape!